Hereford Map, Jerusalem again as centre and the Translatio Imperii

Figure 1: Hereford Map and some important landmarks (See the legend on the map)


“Thus says the LORD God:

This is Jerusalem;

I have set her in the centre of the nations,

with countries all around her.”

(Ezekiel 5:5)

We have seen Bunting’s Map in a precedent post, a renaissance map where the world is centred on Jerusalem in a symbolic way, that is, the space of the world is constructed around the Holy City. Now Hereford Map is analysed: the difference here is that Hereford’s is not meant to be only symbolic, but it was made to represent what was considered to be “real” in the XIIIth Century: Jerusalem was taken as a real, physical and geometrical centre of the world.

We said that the “centre of the world” is a notion which always stems from social construction, from human perception and not from a physical reality. In this regard we do know, today, that Jerusalem is not a physical centre of our Planet; unless we followed the idea that all points of the Planet are its centre: so Jerusalem would be one out of an infinity.

But Hereford Map, one of many maedieval T and O maps, shows that Jerusalem is at the physical centre of the world. We shall see how what we call “physical reality”, is, after all, but a projection of what may have never existed.


Hereford Map

Figure 1: Hereford Map and some important landmarks (See the legend on the map)

Figure 1: Hereford Map and some important landmarks (See the legend on the map)

Hereford Mappa Mundi, according to Hereford Cathedral’s official site, is one of the world’s unique T and O medieval mapsMeasuring 1.59 x 1.34 metres (5’2” by 4’4”), the map is constructed on a single sheet of vellum (calf skin). Scholars believe it was made around the year 1300 and shows the history, geography and destiny of humanity as it was understood in Christendom in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. It was drawn by a Richard de Bello, known also as Richard of Haldingham and Lafford.

The map is oriented to the East, that is, the East is to the north, and it represents the known world of that time: the parts correspondent to today’s Europe, North Africa and most of Asia.

We shall define some features of the map from the east to the west:


1- Christ and Eden, the “highest” on the map

Christ is above and outside the Sphere, as if the world is his throne. He is showing his wounds (thus his human nature and his “right to the World” in the Christian perspective), watching over the Creation.

Eden is represented by a circle on highest point in the Sphere of the world (that is, to the “easternmost” of the map). It is inaccessible to humans and we can still see Eve inside being tempted by the Serpent.

2- Babylon and the Tower of Babel

Babylon is the largest city on the map and the biggest structure. The map gives a detailed account from the Bible on the city. It is, after all, one of the most influential ones according to the Scripture. Babylon is home to the Tower of Babel, itself a story of human arrogance and dream to reach the sky without a spiritual ascension. Babylon can be a symbol of decadence in the world: it is big, beautiful, important, high, majestic and powerful. Yet it is falling, after all, because of her pride so her rule is taken away from her.

3- Jerusalem at the physical centre of the world by then

The physical centre of the world in Hereford Map is Jerusalem (see Figure 1), represented by an eight-towered wall surrounding a focal point which must be the city with both the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple of Solomon, according to the medieval European weltanschauung. This interpretation goes along with a Biblical image given to Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel 5:5 “Thus says the LORD God: This is Jerusalem, I have set her in the centre (amidst) the nation…” Jerusalem at the centre of every nation, the focal point of both geography and history, and the spiritual axis around which all the world goes. In our map Jerusalem is marked by a big crucifix. It is one of hundreds of maps which show Jerusalem as centre of inhabited world. The beholder, even the least attentive one, and in contemplating the map as a whole, shall know that “all turns around the Holy City” and that she is the most important point in the map.

There is a tiny hole in the map’s calf skin in Jerusalem itself, marking the centre of circumference of both Jerusalem and the world (It could be made by a circle drawing tool, a compass for example).

4- Rome who “holds the bridle of the world”

While “natural” dimensions of the world are centred around Jerusalem intellectual ones are focused on Rome: on the map Rome is shown as a big city with a Latin hexameter “Roma caput mundi tenet orbis frena rotundi” (Rome Capital of the World, which holds the bridle [or the reins] of the Planet) Here Rome is the Capital of the World, literally the caput, the head, the thinking mind of the body of the World, and the point which has the imperium, that is, the “chef”, the “command” of the world. Rome is big, but not particularly immense on the map: it is the attentive reading which would allow the beholder to know her pivotal role.

5- Some other important features of the map

Paris is the biggest city in Europe: after all it is the centre of one of the wealthiest kingdoms in Christendom and the centre of science, academia and the headquarter of the Knights Templar with their great banking system.

Constantinople, the biggest city in Europe and the world for centuries, is shown but not that prominent: this can speak of her decay and gradual unfortunate desolation.

The Ark of Noah is shown to the east of Asia Minor, on Mount Ararat, as a place from which humanity spread over the Planet after the Flood.

The Pillars of Hercules are shown as antipodes to Eden: on the lowest point (the “westernmost”) of the map: traditions say that on these columns it is written “NEC PLVS VLTRA” (Nothing further). They are considered as the limit of human existence after which nothing is there.

The Axis Mundi and the Translatio Imperii

Figure 2:  Hereford Map and the Tranlatio Imperii, transfer of Rule, from God to Jerusalem and then Rome

Figure 2: Hereford Map and the Tranlatio Imperii, transfer of Rule, from God to Jerusalem and then Rome

As said before Hereford Mappa Mundi is one out of many in which the world is depicted this way: three parts centred on Jerusalem. Yet this map has a unicity, a very interesting angle represented by the axis which crosses the map from east to west (the vertical axis here, as the map is oriented to the north) and as represented in the Figure 2.

Christ, Eden, Babylon, Jerusalem and Rome: all prominent on the map and all situated on the same axis from “east” to “west”: there is a “push” towards the west: the Kingdom is God’s; then humans’ in Eden but they lost it, then Babylon’s but she lost it because of her arrogance; then Jerusalem’s, City of the Eternal, which surrendered it to Rome by sending one of her sons, Peter, to the caput mundi to converge the Roman Empire and Christianity into one…

The axis of the world is not a mere coincidence on the map or mere aesthetics: the authors, even with their very limited geographical knowledge, knew that Rome, Jerusalem and Babylon are not situated on the same latitudes! But the twist can have a real story of a translatio imperii, necessary for Europe’s and Christendom’s self-image by that time. The Translatio imperii can be defined as transfer of power, the imperium, which is vested in one person or institution. And here one can say that the Hereford Mappa Mundi shows a transfer of power from God to Caesar, from God to Rome, supposed capital of the world in spiritual and temporal matters. The Translatio Imperii view of the world is linear: history and geography converge to invest supreme power in one place in the hands of one institution or person. In Hereford Map the line of the Transfer of Rule is identical to the axis of the world from east to west.

This view of a transfer of rule can be strengthened by the drawing on the left-hand bottom of the map: Augustus Caesar, the Roman Emperor, is depicted on his throne, giving orders to his agents to carry out the famous survey of the “Oecoumene”, mentioned in the New Testament. The writing above his head reads “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…” (Luke 2:1). Caesar has a papal tiara in the drawing, a sign of the spiritual and the temporal converging in Rome: the imperium is given from God to Rome. Jerusalem is the heart, but Rome the head. In this regard the map’s distinction between a centre-heart and a centre-head can be approached to the one made in Europa Prima, another map of Henrich Bunting analysed in another post on this site. The differences are numerous, of course, yet and mutatis mutandis there are some similar outlines between both maps.

Rome is caput mundi, “head of the world”, she leads, and she pretends to have been given power over the whole world. This imperium is not given to her by anyone, but by God himself: who had the world’s power invested in Babylon, then His own appearance in Jerusalem, to transfer them both to Rome: “Holding the bridle of the world” the map says, that is, “driving” the world where she is going. The original sense of the word “centre” is “prick” or “goad” in ancient Greek (as a sign of power and domination). Here Rome’s centrality stems from the original Greek meaning of the word.

Sometimes the Translation Imperii  is called Translatio Studii et Imperii, transfer of Knowledge and of Rule. Clearly the centre is supposed and claims to know better: do not we always say scientia potentia est, knowledge is power?


Conclusion: the transfer of power and the centre, where are we going?

This linear reading of human story is very important in every civilisation and Hereford Map can be but a simple example out of too many to illustrate it.

Another important point to be discussed and maybe analysed in depth: is there an “objective” mapping? Are our maps, supposedly more scientific, more objective than the ones of the Middle Ages? Where is the centre of the world? As science cannot give an answer so why cannot we consider the socially constructed one, Jerusalem, as the one, as a centre-heart? In other words objectivity, scientific objectivity, is but a human invention, something human beings made to find a reference in the world. Here I can quote Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition:

Only we who have erected the objectivity of a world of our own from what nature gives us, who have built it into the environment of nature so that we are protected from her, can look upon nature as something “objective.” Without a world between men and nature, there is eternal movement, but no objectivity.

Another question can be about what is next, after Rome? Where the imperium will be? I would say Washington and the New Empire? It is logical, after the Pillars of Hercules, to continue, to cross the sea and to establish a new seat of power? It can be, I do not have the answer, but I know that the world’s power is still the most important feature of our representation of the world. “Rome” is not only the city of Rome but it is where empires with capitols and imperium rise and rule.



Further readings:

For further information on the map please visit the excellent official site of Hereford Mappa Mundi, URL:

The Hereford Map account given by Henry Davis’ site is great, URL: 

For the Translatio Imperii this book, found on the following URL, can be useful :


Some books on Hereford Map and medieval mapping:

Gabriel Alington, 1996, The Hereford Mappa Mundi.

Philip D. Harvey, 1992, Medieval Maps.

Philip D. Harvey, 2012, Medieval Maps of the Holy Land.

Naomi Reed Kline, 2001, Maps of Medieval Thought: The Hereford Paradigm.

University of Chicago, 1987, History of Cartography.

Cite this blog post
Jack Keilo ( Jacques Keilo ) (2014, June 4). Hereford Map, Jerusalem again as centre and the Translatio Imperii. Centrici. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

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1 Response

  1. 13/07/2016

    […] the Corpus Iuris Civilis of Justinian). She has a globe and a sceptre in her hands, signs of this Roma, caput Mundi, qui regis orbis frena rotundi (Rome, capital of the world, who holds the bridles of the […]

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